It is unlikely that you will see a bleaker, nastier or funnier play in the West End this year than Martin McDonagh’s masterpiece The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Revived in some style by Michael Grandage, and starring none other than Poldark himself, Aidan Turner, its first major revival since its original staging in 2000 by the RSC reveals it to be less a satire on Irish paramilitary terrorism and more the blackest of black comedies of manners in extremis. Imagine Noël Coward – in whose theatre this is, perhaps appropriately, staged – on ketamine, and you have some idea of the rat-a-tat mixture of brilliant one-liners and extreme violence that awaits suitably clued-up theatregoers. Many will find it offensive; others will find the gusto and willingness to shock thrilling.
The storyline is very straightforward. Turner plays ‘Mad’ Padraic, a psychopath drummed out of the IRA for being too extreme, who has instead taken refuge in the splinter group of the INLA. He is devoted to two things in the world: torture, and his cat, Wee Thomas. When he hears tidings that Wee Thomas is poorly – while in the middle of his other favourite pursuit – he downs tools and heads back to Inishmore, where he is confronted by a rogue’s gallery of useless eejits, not least his father Donny (Denis Conway), the imbecilic and splendidly mulleted Christy (Will Irvine) and Mairead (Charlie Murphy), a young terrorist-in-waiting who idolises Padraic. Unfortunately, Wee Thomas has joined the great cattery in the sky, and the lieutenant’s wrath will be a very terrible thing indeed.
It’s hard to overstate how McDonagh’s gift for an appallingly tasteless – but very funny – one-liner or situation, when delivered by a cast as talented as this, can land with an audience, who react somewhere between shock and stunned ‘can we laugh at this?’ hilarity. The first half – the interval lessens some of the momentum and could perhaps be dispensed with – sets the scene, and then the second brings on the Grand Guignol violence, as Padraic sets about showing the assembled company precisely why he has acquired his nickname. Fans of McDonagh’s films, such as In Bruges or Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, may well be shocked at the absence of redemption or especially likeable characters. Others, who take this for what it is, will enjoy the onslaught of literate (if anything, rather too literate) badinage between its often all too limited characters.
The standing ovation for Turner at the end, albeit mainly from excited women of all ages, is thoroughly deserved. Channelling his natural charisma and presence into an entirely unsympathetic role, he makes Padraic both terrifying and hilariously vulnerable, as he commits acts of unblinking horror in between expressing heartfelt worry about his cat’s welfare. His name will guarantee a sold-out run, but actually this is an evening that owes its success to everyone, whether it’s Grandage’s carefully paced direction, Adam Cork’s effective sound design and music and Christopher Oram’s design, which efficiently conveys the sort of cartoonish Ireland that nobody would ever want to visit, despite the characters’ occasional fretting about the effects that their violent actions will have on the tourism trade.
If one has to carp, the first half is notably slower than the second, after the initial flurry of outrageousness, and some of the dialogue could be clearer. But these are minor objections indeed. After something of a lull, the West End has the black comedy to rule them all in its midst once again, and discerning audiences will have the pleasure of watching unsuspecting tourists who have turned up ‘for that nice young man from Poldark’ getting the shock of their lives. Which, frankly, is worth the price of admission itself.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noël Coward Theatre, London. Booking until 8 September 2018. Production images by Johan Persson. For more information and tickets please visit the website.